I am not fond of reality television. In fact, that statement puts my sentiments quite mildly. In truth I am repulsed by the modern television programs that claim to be “reality”. Any program that exploits the young adult population that I serve brings up feelings of anger and frustration for me. For this reason I never expected to find a reality television show that I was able to watch with something more than perverse curiosity, or, more likely, anger and frustration. Two summers ago, while spending my vacation time with my family on the beach, my beloved sister proved me wrong when she insisted that I join her in watching Fox’s hit series, “So You Think You Can Dance”.
The idea behind, “So You Think You Can Dance” is similar to other reality TV staples such as, “America’s Got Talent” or “American Idol”. The idea is that a group of young adults audition for a chance to compete based on their talents in dance. Each contestant has a “style” of dance that they are known for (i.e. Jazz, Contemporary, Ballet, Hip Hop) and throughout the show they compete with a partner in that style as well as others. Early in the competition the judges choose who will move forward from one episode to the next (guided by a phone/text vote) and as the competition progresses to the 10 top performers the judging is placed in the hands of the TV viewing audience.
What makes this show unique in my mind is twofold. First is the way in which the creator, Nigel Lythgoe, has used it to educate the general population about dance. Unlike many other reality television productions it is clear throughout the development of this show over 5 seasons that there has been a systematic educational element, from explaining the way in which various ballroom dances should be performed to exposing the audience to such varied styles of dance as African dance, Paso Doble, Quickstep, and Russian Folk dancing. At the same time that they educate the audience in what makes a particular style unique, judges Nigel Lythgoe and Mary Murphy critique performances in a way that allows the audience to learn what makes a particular performance truly spectacular.
The second unique aspect of the show is the one that keeps me returning week after week, and season after season, not just to the show, but to the live performances in the tour that follows each season’s conclusion. It is the way in which this particular program celebrates the gifts, talents and friendships that emerge as the season progresses. Unlike competitive programs that place an emphasis on the rivalries that form between contestants, “So You Think You Can Dance” places emphasis on the talents of the contestants first and on the friendships and relationships that form not only between the dancers, but also between the judges, the audience and the host as each season progresses. The audience is encouraged to see the connections between the dancers each week as the show chronicles the process through which each couple learns their dances for the week. Interspersed with commentary on the dance are statements about what the dancers enjoy about working with one another. Often in the judges commentary after a performance there is an equal mix of celebration of what was good in that performance and what could be improved in the future. Absent from this process is any kind of criticism that diminishes the performer’s talent or skills.
In a television world that celebrates competitive cut-throat behavior, “So You Think You Can Dance” is a refreshing reminder of all that makes humanity wonderful. At the conclusion of each episode the viewer may be left wondering, “Who will be voted off next?”, or, “Will my favorite dancer win?” but what makes this show delightful is the fact that often the viewer is left with much more. We walk away from our televisions with the experience of having seen truly talented young adults do something amazing and wonderful. We remember their friendships, relationships and gifts. We remember that truly mesmerizing performance that gave us goose-bumps as we watched it. We remember that our own gifts, talents and relationships are not diminished by the gifts of those around us instead they are strengthened when we pool our resources to entertain, inspire and care for one another in ways that the individual cannot do alone.